SPECIAL TEAMS AND TURNOVERS HAUNT NO.23 CLEMSON AGAIN IN 31-24 OVERTIME LOSS TO NO.3 FSU
- 2023-09-24 12:00:45
CLEMSON, SC - Well, I thought the Duke game was the most maddening, frustrating game I ever watched, but this one was probably worse. You may have noticed a very small gathering at the Paw for the Alma Mater after the game. That's because the 80,000 fans were frozen in shock and disbelief after watching Cade's 4th down pass sail over the head of Collins, sending the Seminoles into jubilation, having stolen a game they know they should have lost. Just like the Duke loss, the Tigers outgained FSU 429-311 and had 25 first downs to their 16. And just like Duke, it was turnovers and special teams that cost the Tigers the game. I wrote in my preview that the Tigers would win if they just break even in turnovers and special teams, and they would have. The fumble by Cade cost them 10-14 points because it went the other way for a touchdown. I've never seen anything like this. Every time Cade turns it over, it seems to be as bad a turnover as it could possibly be. It's a pick-six or a 70-yard scoop and score or a fumble on 1st and goal! This one wasn't really Cade's fault because Mafah missed a blocking assignment, and Cade never saw the hit coming, but it's really bizarre that he's had so many massive, costly turnovers in his young career. And it's a shame because he played a sensational game otherwise, and I could see him growing up before our eyes. Of course, despite the 10-14 point swing in a low-scoring game, the Tigers still should have won with a chip-shot 29-yard field goal in the middle of the field with 1:45 left. When Dabo announced that he had called in Jonathan Weitz off the beach to spell struggling freshman kicker Robert Gunn, I just knew in my bones that the game was going to come down to a kick. Dabo said that it would either be an incredible story or a terrible story with no in between. Sure enough, Weitz was given a chance to be the hero on national television and one of the best stories of the season. All he had to do was make a chip-shot field goal in the middle of the field--one that he's probably made in practice with his eyes closed. And he had already made his first career attempt earlier in the game from the exact same distance. However, the pressure and enormity of that situation probably made it seem like a 60-yarder. Many in the stadium thought it was good, but he missed by the slimmest of margins. It's a game of inches, and those inches probably changed which team would win the ACC and go to the playoff. Like Dabo said after the game, everything happens for a reason, and it's all part of God's plan. I don't believe in chance, and the way the Tigers lost both games that they should have won can't be coincidence or dumb luck. The Tigers gave up 38 points off turnovers in 14 games last season. They have already given up 36 points in just 4 games this season! And if you recall, they did a fantastic job avoiding turnovers for the first half of last season. But after a 7-0 start, like a light switch, the turnover bug hit them, and it's carried over into this season. It's the first time they have been 0-2 in ACC play since 2010. That was another fantastically frustrating season and a team that was much better than its 6-7 record. They took Cam Newton and undefeated, national champion Auburn to overtime on the road after holding a 17-point lead. This Clemson team is much better than that one. The Tigers just outplayed the No.3 team that many thought could win a national title, never trailing until overtime. They should be 4-0 with 2 wins over ranked teams and ranked in the top 5. Instead, they have beaten themselves twice, and the reality is that their goals of winning the ACC again and making the playoff are probably out the window, and we're not even out of September.
I know the fans are heart-broken, angry and frustrated. As an alumnus, I feel the same way. I feel sick to my stomach for the players, who played their guts out. The defense held that top-10 offense to just 22 rushing yards, 311 total yards and 17 points! Tyler Davis and Xavier Thomas, who had a big sack, put the NFL on hold to come back to Clemson and win a national title, but wasn't in the cards. Not because this team isn't good enough or talented enough to win it all, but because of several self-inflicted mistakes. If Mafah doesn't miss a block, their national title hopes are still alive. If Weitz doesn't miss a simple field goal--one that Potter would have made left footed--by a few inches, their national title hopes are still alive. And everyone would be talking about how great Clemson is and how foolish they were for counting the Tigers out, saying the dynasty is dead and coronating the Seminoles as the new kings of the ACC. All of that is what makes this such a tough loss to swallow, and it's going to sting for a long time. I almost want the Tigers to lose again because if these are their only two losses--games they should have won--we're going to wonder forever what could have been if not for a hand full of terrible, self-inflicted mistakes. The worst part is that the 12-team playoff starts next year! If had been this year, the Tigers could still win it all.
Having said all that, step away from the cliff and don't dwell on what could have or should have been. The future is bright for the Tigers! Maybe they had to go through all this pain and adversity to make them even stronger for next season. Or maybe it will cause Shipley and Mafah to return for a senior season to settle unfinished business. Who knows? What I do know is that this team is talented enough to win the rest of their games if they will only stop giving the opponents points and taking points away from themselves. They may not repeat as ACC champs, and they may not make the playoff, but they can still go 11-2 with a very young team that will mostly return next season. Cade is growing up before our eyes, playing better every week. So don't lose faith! This is just a bump in the road. The 10-win season streak will continue, and the Tigers will win the first-ever 12-team playoff next season. You just have to believe!
Despite the noon kickoff time--which is a travesty in and of itself, given the magnitude of the game--the atmosphere was electric, and the crowd was loud and raucous from the opening kick. Like a couple of fighters in a heavyweight bout, the two teams sparred back and forth for the first couple possessions, with each defense forcing punts. On their second possession, the Tigers drove 82 yards from their 8 yard line to the FSU 10 but had to settle for a field goal. It was the first career attempt for Jonathan Weitz, who was not even with the team until Monday. We told you the story. Weitz was a career backup for BT Potter, the Tigers' all-time scoring leader, and was living in Charleston as an online grad student when Dabo called him on Sunday and asked him to spell the struggling freshman, Robert Gunn. What a situation in which to make your first career attempt: trying to score the first points of a massive, nationally televised game in front of 80,000! It was only a 30-yarder, but I can't imagine the pressure he was feeling. He put it through, though, to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
The defense responded with a three-and-out thanks to a 3rd and 10 sack by Trotter to end the first quarter. The Tigers got great field position at midfield, and the offense went back to work. A 13-yard completion to Mafah and an incredible, diving catch by freshman Tyler Brown for 28 yards got them to the FSU 6, and on 2nd and one, Cade scored on a quarterback sneak to make it 10-0. It was the second game in a row with a successful goal line sneak with Cade under center. Brown landed hard on his shoulder and hurt it but continued playing through the pain. He had to step up in his first career start at slot with Antonio Williams out, and he did just that! All of the receivers really stepped up. They were minus two starters between Williams and Turner, but Brown, Collins, Randall and Stellato all made big catches, as did tight end Jake Briningstool.
Even the best defense couldn't shut down that offense with all those transfers forever, though. The Noles put together a 75 yard touchdown drive to make it 10-7. However, the Tigers' offense responded. Stellato made a couple big catches, and Cade completed a 33-yard pass to Briningstool to the Noles' 12. Shipley caught a short pass underneath for a touchdown. Ironically, it was his second TD catch of the season and his career, but he still didn't have a rush TD yet.
The Tigers had a 17-7 lead with just over 2 minutes left in the half, but FSU was able to drive 75 yards for a touchdown with 22 seconds left thanks tot he refs. They missed a blatant hold on Xavier Thomas, which resulted in a 38-yard completion to Coleman, and on the next play, they made a bad pass interference call on Sheridan Jones for 15 more yards. He shielded the receiver out of bounds, which is perfectly legal, and the ball was uncatchable anyway! The missed call and bad call gave the Noles 63 of the 75 yards they needed to score, and it drew a chorus of boos from the crowd for about 10 minutes of real time until the Tigers went to the locker room with a 17-14 lead. Incidentally, Dabo was 83-1 when leading at home by 10 or more points at any time. The only loss was the 31-30 loss to the Gamecocks last season that snapped their nation-leading home win streak! And that was another flukey game with costly turnovers.
FSU had the ball first after halftime and Fitzgerald, having a much better season than last year, made a 48-yard field goal to tie the game. After each team forced a punt, the Tigers drove 77 yards for a touchdown to retake the lead 24-17. Cade had a 17-yard run and completed big passes to Brown, Stellato and Bringingstool to get to the one-yard line, where Shipley punched it in for his first rush TD of the season and second TD of the game.
The defense forced a three-and-out, and Mafah busted a 46-yard run to the Noles' 29. It had been tough sledding in the run game against that FSU front, but the fresh legs of Shipley and Mafah seemed to be wearing them down. The Tigers had all the momentum at this point, and the crowd could smell victory with the Tigers about to go ahead by 10-14 points late in the 3rd. And that's when disaster struck again! Due to a miscommunication, Mafah missed a blocking assignment, and Cade was blind-sided by LB Kalen DeLoach, who I wrote about in my preview. He forced a fumble and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. It was a 10-14 point swing with just a quarter left to play. I've never seen anything like this, and Dabo hasn't either in all his years of coaching, where every mistake is catastrophic. It was the only turnover of the game, and it cost the Tigers the game. They would have beaten No.3 FSU by 2 scores, just like they did in 2003, Dabo's first year on the staff, when I helped tear down the west goal post. It simply was not to be.
The Tigers and the crowd were shell-shocked by the turn of events that completely flipped the momentum on its head, but the Tigers were not going to stop fighting. Each team forced a punt, and then Swanson boomed a punt 62 yards to the Noles' 18, totally flipping the field position battle. The defense responded with complimentary football, as Xavier Thomas sacked Travis on 3rd and 19 to force a punt and give the Tigers good field position. It was just a 3-man rush, but XT still got home for the Tigers' second sack of the game. He was outstanding all day! The offense methodically marched down the field to the Noles' 12 but were unable to get in the end zone. Sure enough, just like I knew it would, the game would hinge on a kick by Jonathan Weitz, who never attempted a field goal before this game and had not even kicked a football in practice until days before. It couldn't have been an easier setup--dead center from 29 yards, just about 10 yards longer than a PAT--but it couldn't have been under more pressure. Dabo said that Weitz would either be a great story or a terrible one. It started great, as he was a perfect with his PAT's and his first field goal attempt, but the storybook ending was not to be. He hooked it left and missed by inches.
That gave the Noles an opportunity to win with a field goal. They had plenty of time with 1:45 on the clock and all their timeouts. Travis completed two big passes to his favorite target, Johnny Wilson, and suddenly they had a first down at the Tigers' 39. It looked like they would be able to get in field goal range, but the Tigers' defense held their ground when they had to. 4 straight incomplete passes, with the last 2 broken up by Wiggins, who injured his leg on the 4th down deep ball to the end zone. The Noles made a 48-yard field goal earlier in the game, and Fitzgerald is perfect on the season, but they elected to go for it on 4th and 10 rather than attempt a 56-yard field goal for the win.
The Tigers got the turnover on downs with just 12 seconds left and no timeouts because they wasted one earlier on a miscommunication. Shipley ran for 13 yards to the Noles' 48, but rather than spike the ball and go for a Hail Mary, they let the clock expire and the game went to overtime. I believe it was the first overtime game in Death Valley since the Tigers beat NC State in 2016.
The Tigers won the toss and obviously went on defense first. On the second play, Travis completed a 24-yard pass to Coleman for the transfer's second touchdown of the game. It was a perfect throw and catch. The Tigers needed a TD to keep overtime going, but they turned it over on downs on 4 plays. They had 3rd and one and inexplicably threw a screen pass to Randall instead of a run. On 4th and one, they passed again, and Cade sailed the ball over the head of Collins on a slant to end the game. The crowd was in disbelief. They've seen the Tigers win so many of those one-score barn-burners over the last 10 years that it felt completely surreal.
It was one hell of a football game but the wrong team won. The Tigers were clearly the better team, and if you look at the stats, you would think they had won until you see the only turnover that went 70 yards for a FSU touchdown and a missed 29-yard field goal to win the game. Again, it simply was not meant to be. I have nothing but faith and confidence in Dabo and this team. They are all winners with the hearts of champions, and I have to believe they will win the rest of their games this season. I didn't think the catastrophic turnovers and missed kicks could happen twice in a 4-game span, but surely flukes like that can't keep happening! They have to go to Syracuse next week, where they've had a fluke loss in the past, but maybe it will be a reversal of fortune this time. It will probably do the team could to go on the road and get away from all the noise after this gut-wrenching loss. Onwards and upwards!
I'll more in a bit, so stay tuned and be sure to check back for our Sunday evening call with Dabo! In the meantime, post-game interviews, highlights and notes are below.
Never miss the latest news from CUTigers!
Join our free email list